2007: El museo de las consciencias; Lieux communs

El museo de las consciencias (The Museum of Consciences)
by Mel Hython a.k.a Melitón (Juan Antonio Paz Salgado), Santiago Eximeno, Urbatain a.k.a. Ruber Eaglenest (Ruben Alberto Aguilera Nieto), Grendel Khan (Xavier Carrascosa) and Depresiv (Pablo Martínez Merino)
Released: June 15, 2007
Language: Inform 7/InformSP7 (Spanish)
Platform: Glulx [Win/Mac/Linux]

Opening Text:

Tu padre te abandonó cuando aún no tenías uso de razón. Te dejó en una casa en la cima de una pequeña colina, al cuidado de dos mujeres siniestras, eternamente vestidas de negro. Te abandonó a los rincones oscuros, a las alargadas sombras de la vieja casa, a los silencios y al tedio. Puede que tu padre haya muerto en algún lugar allá fuera. Esperas y deseas que haya sido así.

Your father abandoned you when you were too young to remember. He left you in a house on the top of a little hill, in the care of two sinister women forever dressed in black. He abandoned you to the dark corners and long shadows of the old house, to its silences and to its monotony. Perhaps your father died, somewhere out there. You hope and dream that he did.

Lieux communs (Common Places)
by ifiction. free. fr, including JB/Le Jibe, Stormi (Samuel Verschelde), Otto Grimwald (Eric Forgeot), Mule hollandaise (Hugo Labrande), Jean-Luc Pontico, and Stab
Released: June 15, 2007
Language: Inform 6 (French)
Platform: Glulx [Win/Mac/Linux]

Opening Text:

Après avoir cheminé quelques heures dans des territoires pour moi encore relativement familiers, je m’étais retrouvé à continuer cette balade vers un chemin inconnu, sans m’en rendre tout à fait compte à ce moment.

Je pouvais ainsi poursuivre au nord et longer la rive d’un fleuve allant vers un océan non répertorié sur les cartes du monde actuel...

After walking some hours in territories still relatively known to me, I found myself continuing along an unknown path, without in that moment quite realizing it.

I could therefore continue north and follow the bank of a river flowing toward an ocean not listed on maps of the material world...

[Note: cites an example of H.P. Lovecraft’s racism and quotes a game sequence containing body horror hallucinations involving worms.]

“There’s this great bubble that is English interactive fiction,” a Spanish-speaking gamemaker once wrote:

free from problems or constant threats. Hovering outside it are other, smaller bubbles, communities using other languages, influenced by the English bubble but incapable of influencing the others, unable to communicate with them. That lack of communication leads them to feel isolated, at first, and then a sense of futility, when efforts to carry out a project aren’t rewarded, when the number of potential players of one of our stories doesn’t compensate for the work we’ve invested in them.

The author, Depresiv—like many in the Spanish IF community, he goes by a handle there rather than his given name—was explaining how he came to be involved with an unusual project that brought together text game creators working in English, Spanish, and French. The unifying theme of the project connected to American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, but that wasn’t why Depresiv had wanted to take part. Instead it was “the possibility that something like this, in which three different languages live together in the same project, might help break that silence.”

The project was centered around Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book, a collection of over two hundred mostly unused ideas the writer had compiled across his career. For the 70th anniversary of his death, the Maison d’Ailleurs Museum of Science Fiction in Switzerland had decided to stage an exhibition with a unique twist: artists would be invited to choose a single idea from the Commonplace Book and create an artwork inspired by it. A hundred artists would end up participating, including well-known names like writer Christopher Priest (The Prestige) and artist H.R. Giger, who picked idea #144:

Hideous book glimpsed in ancient shop—never seen again.

American IF author Peter Nepstad had been doing research for a series of horror games inspired by Lovecraft predecessors like Lord Dunsany when he stumbled on the Swiss museum’s website. Since writers were already included (penning original short stories for the exhibition’s catalogue) it struck him that perhaps the museum might be open to including interactive fiction inspired by Lovecraft as well. The submission deadline had already passed, but Nepstad emailed the curator anyway, with the thought of contributing an original work inspired by a Commonplace Book entry. The museum was located in the French-speaking part of Switzerland: eager to sweeten the deal, Nepstad promised—perhaps unwisely—that he could arrange for some French work to be included as well. The curator wrote back and seemed open to the idea: “Something in English + French would be great.” Now Nepstad had a problem: not a French speaker, he suddenly needed to find one who could write IF, was a fan of horror, and would be interested in participating in a cooperative project in a very short time frame.

Fortunately, a French IF game called Ekphrasis had recently made waves in the English-speaking community, winning rare multilingual acclaim (its author would in later years create the popular indie hit Out There). Nepstad reached out to him (he was then using the handle JB, or Le Jibe) to see if he might be interested in the project. “You could just do a translation of my game,” Nepstad offered, “but that doesn’t sound like as much fun.” JB reposted the offer on ifiction.free.fr, a forum of French-speaking IF creators, to see if there was any interest. A poster who went by Otto Grimwald (today better known as Eric Forgeot) asked in response “pourquoi pas en faire une IF commune?” (Why not make it a communal IF?)

It might be nice if there were several of us working together, which will be more fun (no doubt), take less work (maybe), and would still let us finish [our own games for] the French competition (which, of course, is imperative...)

The French IF community had an almost entirely different backstory than the English-speaking one. While most American and English fans had grown up playing (or at least retroactively admiring) the classic 1980s text adventures of companies like Infocom or Magnetic Scrolls, France had skipped over text games entirely. By the mid-1980s when enough personal computers were on the market there to warrant a professional games scene, graphics were already well-established: and since many young gamemakers were strongly influenced by the huge French comics scene, there was little appetite for making games with no art. It wasn’t until the 2000s, when a handful of French speakers discovered the newer games of the English IF renaissance like Photopia and Galatea, that a community of text game fans came together to try making their own. Games appeared only slowly—first translations, then original titles—with the first regular French IF competition, mirroring the English-centric IF Comp, appearing only in 2005. French interactive fiction was still young, and Nepstad’s invitation seemed a great opportunity to showcase it to an international community of players. The French authors proposed to Nepstad their communal game, an omnibus of short pieces each inspired by a different entry from Lovecraft’s tome of ideas. After both their collaborative effort and the source of inspiration, they titled it Lieux communs, “Common Places.”

With not just one or two titles but a whole collection of games now in the works, Nepstad hoped to broaden participation as widely as possible: he announced the project on the English IF newsgroups on April 9, 2007. Anyone was welcome to contribute a game in any language, though with a deadline just two months away. A few years earlier, Nepstad had found modest commercial success selling a boxed IF game on CD-ROM—his ambitious historical adventure 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery—and had started a company called Illuminated Lantern (a reference to Adventure) to sell it and explore the possibilities of publishing more interactive fiction. The Commonplace Book Project, he thought, had the potential to become something quite unique: a multilingual anthology of IF that could be exhibited at festivals and archived in libraries, an ambassador for text games to horror fans around the world.

Another international IF community took note of Nepstad’s announcement. Spanish interactive fiction had developed on yet another unique trajectory from French or English IF. The larger number of Spanish speakers worldwide had made commercial text games in the language a more viable concern in the 1980s, and aventuras conversacionales—conversational adventures—were for a while a popular market share. One game company based in Spain had a unique line for their text adventures called Aventuras AD; toward the end of the 1980s, a fan club founded in Valencia called CAAD (Club de Aventuras AD) became a popular community hub for enthusiasts, holding contests for homebrew games written in languages like PAWS or the Spanish-specific tool SINTAC (Sistema Integrado de creacion de Aventuras Conversacionales). When commercial text games died, clubs like CAAD and an existing culture of amateur games kept Spanish-speaking fans more unified than English ones had been. The wave of tools like Inform that came out of the 1990s English IF renaissance were eagerly adopted by the Spanish community: fan-made libraries like José Luis Diaz’s InformATE, Inform Ahora Totalmente en Español (Now Totally in Spanish) proved a foundation for many new works. Within days of Nepstad’s announcement, a group of Spanish authors contacted him to say that their community, too, wanted to submit an anthology game. Over a dozen stories in three different languages were now planned to be part of the project.

Not all participants were especially enamored of Lovecraft. While his writings had become a foundational pillar of genre fan culture at the end of the twentieth century, fewer and fewer readers were willing to overlook the implicit and often entirely explicit racism in the famously xenophobic writer’s work. In response to Nepstad’s announcement, one poster noted that Commonplace Book entry #108 was “Educated mulatto seeks to displace personality of white man and occupy his body.” Most (white) fans hadn’t yet begun the deeper soul-searching that would result in a more thorough condemnation and re-evaluation of Lovecraft over the next decade (resulting in works like Lovecraft Country and The Ballad of Black Tom, among others). But some of the Commonplace Book Project authors kept the tension in mind while creating their entries. One of the Spanish pieces begins with a familiar story of a white man making an archaeological dig in 1800s Africa, but has the player take on the role of a local Maasai warrior with a less foolish perspective than the viejo mago blanco (old white wizard) who would have undoubtedly been Lovecraft’s narrator. “The horror of Lovecraft and his friends was based on fear of the other, the strange,” wrote Melitón, another of the Spanish contributors. “It seems to me kind of outdated, from the beginning of the twentieth century.”

With only two months to write, each community adopted different strategies for organizing and creating their games. The French IFers set up an SVN source code repository, and rather than give each author ownership over particular stories, encouraged anyone in the community to contribute in their own way: “whether with art, writing text, researching ideas or puzzles, proofreading, correcting spelling, grammar or coordination etc.” Filling in missing item or room descriptions was a way even a busy student—at least one collaborator was still in high school—could contribute, and the final game would be credited to all of ifiction. free. fr, rather than individual authors. The collaborators first agreed on a frame story—a ghostly caravan filled with mysterious objects, based on Commonplace Book entry #99:

Salem story—the cottage of an aged witch—wherein after her death are found sundry terrible things.

Forgeot set up an Inform 6 master file with a script that could include other story files found within the repo: authors were asked to name their files with the number of their Commonplace Book inspiration, and to give any items the same number as a suffix, to avoid namespace problems (“because if you have a door called Door, and I have the same in my game, it will get stuck”). In part to make the project more accessible to imagined players in a Swiss art gallery, the team decided to include music and illustrations, and to keep puzzles simple. While the style and subject varied with each story and contributor, many of the French games trended more philosophical and dream-like, their prose flowing perhaps better in the original than in translation:

Le long de la rivière
Voici où nous mènent nos pas, lorsqu’on les confie à nos pensées dérivantes...

Las d’un voyage dont seules les parts obscures de mon imagination en étaient les étapes, je me trouvai malgré moi loin de tout, sur les rives d’un fleuve charriant des eaux sombres vers un Océan dont la rumeur saline me parvenait indistinctement.

Along the river
Here is where our steps lead us, when we entrust them to our drifting thoughts...

Weary of a journey with only the dark parts of my imagination for its stages, I found myself far from everything, on the banks of a river carrying dark waters toward an Ocean whose saline rumor reached me but obscurely.

One vignette begins with you drifting in the ocean, the lost survivor of a shipwreck. Coming to rest on a spar of jagged obsidian, you find a bronze trapdoor inscribed with the sigil of an eye surrounded by eight tentacles. After opening it you descend into murky darkness through dripping-wet caverns, eventually passing through a gate unlocked by a sonic code to find an enormous city, La Cité sous les Eaux:

Résister à la folie... et contempler, dans leurs insaisissables dimensions, les blocs monolithiques verdâtres, alignés selon une géométrie non euclidienne, des statues gargantuesques et immondes gravées de hiéroglyphes dérangeants, de tous côtés, et même au-dessus sur un plafond lointain que je me refusais d’imaginer.

Resist the madness... and contemplate, in their elusive dimensions, the green-tinged monolithic blocks, aligned in a non-Euclidean geometry, gargantuan and filthy statues engraved with unsavory hieroglyphs on all sides, and even above on a ceiling so distant I refused to imagine it.

The Spanish community’s games hewed closer to the standard auteur-driven mode of IF authorship, with each vignette given a title and credited to particular authors, and thus exhibited a somewhat wider range of styles and subjects. Here the frame story was inspired by Entry #167:

Boy rear’d in atmosphere of considerable mystery. Believes father dead. Suddenly is told that father is about to return. Strange preparations—consequences.

The “strange preparations” in El museo de las consciencias involve a museum of curious relics assembled by your absent father: as in Lieux communs, each is an excuse to transition into a new vignette. The Spanish collaborators, in contrast to the French authors newly arrived to the hobby, were mostly old veterans of the 1980s scene, and brought a range of concepts and styles to the scenarios they created. In one scene set in the present day, you play an addict whose bad coke trip triggers a hallucinogenic nightmare. “Trying to convey through written words what a drugged mind might feel is very difficult,” wrote reviewer Dwalin for SPAC, a Spanish IF review site: “even more so when given the form of an interactive story. The result is very disconcerting at first”:

>examina cd
Ojos gusanos cornea se posan sobre la caja de CD.
Literalmente se esfuma ante tus ojos, junto con las cositas verdes. Humo blanco sale y forma como caras-gusanos-colmillo en el aire.

Ahí fuera está ese tipo. Es bueno es calidad, 30 euros. Pagas y tomas-sonrisa podrida de dientes-rubia gusanos come ojos. Excelente material el del umbral. eso es todo- ojos azules se acercan-algo de molestia al desgarrar la córnea eso es todo, pagas y te vas.

>sal del coche
Aproximas tu mano hacia la puerta, pero gusanos verdes cornea salen de tu piel. La han devorado y buscando a ciegas encuentras el suelo entre vómitos de JB y Mc’Donalds-Caen más gusanos de tí y el cemento se vuelve tierra fresca. Gusanos salen de tus orejas y la música de discoteca suena como tambores de guerra en la lejanía. No es cierto y sin embargo ahí está-sin duda-muy conocido. Caras-gusano se esfuman en el aire como billetes y por un momento dejas de gritar. [...]

Te tocas la cara y te frotas los ojos, sí los tienes. De hecho, estás bastante bien, a pesar de los temblores y el sudor frio que empapa tu ropa. Algo hay que no va bien, tras las plantas te pareció haber observado un extraño movimiento. ¿Plantas?

>examina plantas
Ya te he dicho-chaval-que todo son imaginaciones tuyas. sin duda es producto de las drogas y de tu inagotable imaginación-es bueno es calidad. monos en el aire como gusanos-córnea alimentándose de pulpa en deportivos rojos. plantas moviéndose en el umbral.

>examine cd
Corneal eyeworms pose on the cover of the CD case.
It literally vanishes before your eyes, along with the little green things. White smoke rises and forms wormfangfaces in the air.

That guy is out there. Its good its quality, 30 euros. You pay and take it, rotten toothy smile, pale eye-eating worms. Great stuff for the threshold. that’s all—blue eyes getting closer—some fuss when tearing the cornea, that’s all, you pay and you go.

>get out of the car
You reach for the door, but the green cornea-worms come out of your skin. They’ve devoured it and searching blindly you find the ground amidst the vomit from JB’s and McDonalds—More worms fall out of you and the cement becomes fresh earth. Worms burst from your ears and disco music sounds like war drums in the distance. Nothing is certain and yet this, no doubt, is certain. Wormfaces evaporate into the air like scattering ticket stubs and for a moment you stop screaming. [...]

You touch your face and rub your eyes, yes you have them. In fact you’re doing quite well, despite the shivering and cold sweat soaking your clothes. Something’s wrong, behind the plants you think you can see a weird movement. Plants?

>look at plants
I already told you—kid—that it’s all your imagination. without a doubt a product of drugs and your inexhaustible imagination—great that it’s top-notch. monkeys in the air like cornea-worms feeding on flesh in red sneakers. plants moving on the threshold.

The distant music turns out to be from a demonic rave happening behind the unreal vegetation, reachable perhaps only because of your drugged state (and inspired by entry #11: “Odd nocturnal ritual. Beasts dance and march to musick.”) The scene degenerates into a demonic orgy: “yeah, we snuck a pornographic piece into a Swiss museum,” one of the collaborators cheekily recalls. In another scene with a wholly different tone, you become a member of an ancient, doomed sea-dwelling people:

>entra mar
Con agilidad propia de tu raza saltas hacia el mar y él te recibe con suavidad. Sois partes de una misma cosa.

El Mar
Esto es el mar. ¿Qué más hay que decir? Es el Lugar. Todo viene de estas aguas siempre en movimiento, siempre frías, siempre amables...

>enter sea
With the agility typical of your people, you dive into the sea, and he receives you gently. You are parts of the same thing.

The Sea
This is the sea. What more is there to say? It is the Place. Everything comes from these waters always in motion, always cold, always kind...

Writing IF in languages other than English was made much simpler by using Inform, which had been designed with an eye for localization: a hefty chapter of its manual concerned teaching it to speak and understand other languages. A “language definition file” could instruct Inform how to do everything from recognizing verbs...

Verb "ecrire"
    *                                       -> Ecrire
    * 'sur'/'dans' noun                     -> Ecrire
    * 'avec' held                           -> Ecrire
    * 'sur'/'dans' noun 'avec' held         -> Ecrire
    * 'avec' held 'sur'/'dans' noun         -> Ecrire
    * topic 'sur'/'dans' noun               -> Ecrire
    * topic 'avec' held                     -> Ecrire
    * topic 'sur'/'dans' noun 'avec' held   -> Ecrire
    * topic 'avec' held 'sur'/'dans' noun   -> Ecrire
    * topic                                 -> Ecrire;

...to parsing pronouns...

Array LanguagePronouns table

   !  word       possible GNAs
   !             to follow:
   !             a     i
   !             s  p  s  p
   !             mfnmfnmfnmfn

      ! Object pronouns
      '-le'    $$100000100000
      '-la'    $$010000010000
      '-les'   $$000110000110
      '-lui'   $$110000110000
      '-leur'  $$000110000110
  ! Disjunctive pronouns
      'luy'    $$110000110000 
      'lui'    $$100000100000
      'elle'   $$010000010000
      'eux'    $$000110000110
      'elles'  $$000010000010

...to printing default messages:

Close: switch (n) {
  1: "Fermer cela me semblait impossible.";
  2: print (ctheyreorthats) x1, " déjà fermé";
     if (x1 has female) "e.";
  3: "Je fermai ", (the) x1, ".";

Each new language definition file had to solve its own unique linguistic problems. While spaces usually work well to separate tokens in an English command like take the bag, more elaborate strategies were necessary to pull out the components of a French command like aller a l’est (go east), or a Spanish reflexive verb like examinarme (examine myself). Gender in English only exists for animates (humans and animals), but authors in both French and Spanish needed to define a gender for every object in their simulated worlds, so the game could correctly understand and generate sentences about both un pendentif and une pioche. Both languages also faced challenges with dialects: while the original Inform supports switching between American and British English, the minor spelling and style variations that result are less significant than the stakes behind setting a Spanish game to dialecto sudamericano vs dialecto castellano. The verb in Spain for “to take,” for instance, has a vulgar meaning in parts of Latin America, so setting the correct dialect is key to avoiding the kind of awkward mistake sometimes seen while playing Spanish games via online translation services (which don’t have the benefit of regional context):

>take the bag

As the French and Spanish teams sprinted toward a polished set of vignettes for their anthologies, Nepstad invited other communities to participate. He reached out to fans making graphical adventure games, leading to two point-and-click submissions from creators working in engines called Wintermute and Lassie. Among English IF authors, one submission came in using the user-friendly creation tool ADRIFT (which lets authors define a game mostly through menus, rather than a programming language). Jon Ingold, later to co-found game studio inkle, contributed a well-regarded piece inspired by one of the most scattered Commonplace Book entries, #67:

An impression—city in peril—dead city—equestrian statue—men in closed room—clattering hooves heard outside—marvel disclosed on looking out—doubtful ending.

Nepstad contributed his own game written in his favorite IF design language TADS. In total, seven games were included, almost every one using a different framework for making interactive fiction: a fascinating snapshot of community tooling at the end of the century’s first decade. If each story in the French and Spanish anthologies were counted separately, the whole project included a hefty twenty games. The entries debuted on the IF newsgroups on June 18, 2007: afterwards, Nepstad worked with the authors to polish up final versions and assemble them in a slicker package, including a unified launcher, which he could submit to the Swiss curator. The games were accepted into the exhibition, which opened at the Maison d’Ailleurs just in time for Halloween that year and ran through the following spring. In a gallery filled with creepy art, a computer in a corner let attendees take a break to play through a handful of creepy interactive stories, too.

As Depresiv had noted, each community of gamemakers lives in its own bubble, often isolated from others by barriers of technology, privilege, convention, and language. Sometimes it’s hard to keep those bubbles alive. Nepstad had also reached out to the Italian interactive fiction community, but got a response back that it was “sleeping,” with not enough members then active to make a contribution; German IF fans had been active a few years earlier, but not much had been heard from them lately and it was unclear if they were still around. There had been Russian IF, but no one in the English community knew who to talk to about it. And even for “active” communities, the term could be relative. The French IF group was a tiny cadre of fans; other text game niches were kept afloat by only two or three members, circles where beggars could not afford to be choosers. Melitón had taken to writing harsh reviews of Spanish games purely to inure the community to criticism: one of his excoriating critiques ended nevertheless with a mostly rhetorical question: “¿Lo recomendaría entonces? Sí, claro, hay en realidad tan poco que interleer.” (So would I recommend it? Yes, of course, there’s really so little [Spanish IF] to read.)

Fear of the unknown has often kept creators working in different languages apart. Fear of not understanding, of looking foolish, of making mistakes, or—worst, for a creator in a fragile bubble—of being ignored. Yet as Melitón noted, perhaps this flavor of fear is one we ought to leave in the previous century. Google Translate and similar tools make it far easier than it once was to play interactive fictions in languages you don’t speak at all, if you’re willing to make a little effort to try; any amount of fluency makes the prospect much easier. And a bit of reaching out, as Nepstad showed, can go a long way. It’s ironic that a project celebrating the xenophobic Lovecraft helped, for a moment, to unite groups of fans with different backgrounds and cultures into common purpose. Maybe it should happen more often. Though it’s sometimes hard to remember, the common places of the internet were meant to help bring us together.

Next week: a grad student’s nightmare and a rethinking of the natural language for writing interactive fiction.

You can play El museo de las consciencias (in Spanish), Lieux communs (in French; source available), or the English parser games from the Commonplace Book Project online (the two graphical titles may be harder to track down, but information about them can be found on the project’s archived website). To play games in languages you don’t speak, some patience and some copy/pasting from a tool like Google Translate will be required. Here are some helpful Spanish and French verbs, with links to some other recommended IF works in those languages. Translations quoting the games and their makers (and any errors therein) are my own. Thanks to Rubén Aguilera (Ruber Eaglenest/Urbatain), Pablo Merino (Depresiv), and Hugo Labrande for offering feedback on a draft of this piece, and to Peter Nepstad for creating the project and recording its history. Thanks again to Hugo Labrande and Depresiv for their histories of French and Spanish IF, and special thanks to past editors of fan zines SPAG (English) and SPAC (Spanish) for documenting the IF scenes of their eras so thoroughly; multiple articles from both were invaluable in researching this and other pieces in the series.